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What Is Your Superpower? Neurodiversity and Tech at QConSF 2019

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What's your superpower? Elizabeth Schneider posed this question early in her talk on neurodiversity at QConSF 2019, as she explained to the audience how understanding her own neurodiversity gave her greater strength to work with others and deliver great work. However, she also had to recognize that she had weaknesses (kryptonite), and needed to recharge in an appropriate fortress of solitude, just like other superheroes.

Schneider, a self-taught software engineer and consultant with Microsoft, explained that autism is something you are, not something you have - you can't be healed from it. Instead, the neurodiverse among us have evolved, with a different way of thinking that can advance the tech industry - or any industry. She described how she was able to better understand herself and others by learning more about differences in communication styles and understanding empathy.

As a programmer several years ago, Schneider came to understand that she communicated differently than others after her scrum master had the team do a quick self-evaluation on communication styles; most of the rest of the team was in a completely different quadrant than where Schneider found herself. This helped her recognize that she could learn how to adjust her communication style to fit the needs of others, and to ask for specific adjustments in how others communicated with her. She gave the example of having other in her team give her a cue (tapping on the wrist) when she got too excited about a specific topic.

Understanding the difference between empathy and sypmathy also helped Schneider improve her ability to communicate with her team. Referencing Brené Brown’s work on empathy, Schneider discussed how being able to "put yourself in someone’s shoes" has helped her better recognize the needs of the customer, the product owner, and other team members. 

Additionally, Schneider described how she works with others on better ways to provide advice (something actionable), rather than feedback (some generic phrases like "that was good"), and ensure that she has time to process the information before acting on it.

While communication and interactions with others is important to understand, Schneider also noted a couple of environmental changes that, while subtle, can improve productivity. Citing research on office temperature, Schneider notes that a small increase in the physical heat of an office can result in greatly improved cognitive function in women.  Additionally, she encourages the use of "focus time" - four or more hours of uninterrupted time - where deep thinking can occur.

What are your superpowers? Your kryptonite? And where is your fortress of solitude? Anyone who is autistic - or neurodiverse - can benefit from understanding their communications style, negative triggers, and how they recharge. 

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